LSU and Alabama, likewise, are playing to the strength of their talents, Smart explained.
“We’re not built like those two teams, we’re built very differently, and that’s not always by nature,” Smart said. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden Alabama decided they were going to throw the ball all the time. They got a stellar group of wideouts in one gathering. It’s like they all came in at once and became really good players.
“Same thing at LSU. I mean LSU, they’ve had good wideouts over the years. But they have a really stellar group at the same time, along with a transfer quarterback who has been impactful. So I don’t know that philosophically both those guys made huge changes, as much as they inherited two quarterbacks who are unique, who can do special things, and they’ve got some special players around them.”
Q. Kirby, what’s the biggest thing about LSU’s offense that just kind of took the SEC by storm this year? Is it the quarterback, the play calling, the running back, combination of all of it? What can you put your finger on?
KIRBY SMART: That’s a great question. First of all, I’ve been in this league for a long time, and I don’t know that I’ve seen the combination of things they’ve got. They’ve got an elite quarterback that’s a really good athlete. They have a back that is a matchup guy. He can match up on anybody and go in. They’ve got really good wideouts, and they’ve got an experienced offensive line. So they go tempo, but they don’t go tempo to just run the ball, they go tempo and take shots. They never change personnel. It’s like 28 consecutive snaps with the same people on the field. So it does not allow you to substitute in the pattern that you want to.
So there’s a combination of a lot of things, and it is scheme oriented, [Emphasis added} but it’s a lot more than scheme. They have plays that they’ve run all year, that we’ve run all year. Our plays haven’t looked like their plays because a lot of times we might not have the same guys doing those plays.
They’ve got a great group of wideouts combined with an extremely athletic quarterback, and it hit at the right time. I’ve got a lot of respect for what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. They’re hard to defend.
He really wants to sell what happened yesterday as a personnel issue, which is a somewhat remarkable admission from a guy who’s coaching reputation is built on a recruit first approach.
Now, I’m not totally unsympathetic to his point. Georgia was short-handed on offense yesterday and I’ll concede it’s well within the realm of probability that may have contributed to the scope of the loss. But it’s awfully simplistic to boil everything down to this:
I’m not a coaching savant like Smart, nor does anyone pay me $7 million a year to figure things like that out. But what I keep coming back to is Coley’s comment in the preseason that success in being an offensive coordinator is remembering that it’s about “players, not plays”. Does anybody really believe that Georgia’s offensive game plan is similar to LSU’s in that regard?
If you want some idea of how scheme matters, take a look at this chart Andy Staples ($$) put together:
QB No. 1 is Jake Fromm, this season. QB No. 2 is Joe Burrow, last season. You tell me what’s changed between them.
Let’s face it — Georgia’s 2019 offensive philosophy is about Kirby Smart, not players. How else do you explain the reluctance to employ tempo? The SECCG was no exception to what we’ve seen in every other game this year. When the offense goes up-tempo, it works. Fromm relaxes. The team gets in a rhythm. The ball moves downfield. (And, inevitably, it seems, a defender suffers an injury.) Despite that, Coley simply won’t stick with it for any long period of time.
Why? Because Georgia is addicted to substituting. It’s in Smart’s DNA. Read the first paragraph from that presser quote of his again. LSU ran 28 straight plays in 11 formation yesterday. Certainly that frustrated Smart the defensive whiz who loves matching players to situations, but it’s also an alien concept to him on offense, because it’s ingrained in his approach that mixing and matching personnel and sets is the way to go, even if his quarterback’s performance suffers.
And it clearly has. Fromm finishes 2019 failing to complete 50% of his pass attempts in five straight games. Think about that for a minute. Not only is that a remarkable regression on the part of a junior quarterback who is the national leader in consecutive starts, but it’s a stat that’s virtually unheard of for a current top five team. Even if, arguing for a moment that the South Carolina loss never happened, Georgia had made the CFP field, there’s no way it would have held up in a group with elite quarterbacks at the three undefeated teams that are the top seeds. Nobody competent plays offensive football like that anymore.
Kirby clearly wants to point fingers at his receiving corps.
“The first two years, Jake’s numbers were better, so the indicator of that was four wide receivers were on our sideline that were drafted that are playing in the NFL,” Smart said. “And the loss of those wideouts, the vertical threat, has probably hurt our team. That’s my responsibility, right, to replace them. That’s my responsibility to replace them in recruiting, and we probably haven’t done a good enough job of that.”
Too simple. It’s not just a matter of replacing departures with recruits. Hell, Pickens and Blaylock aren’t perfect, but as true freshmen they’ve certainly been bigger contributors this season than several returning players. The problem this season hasn’t just been talent; it’s been player development just as much, if not more. We’ve already discussed shortcomings like route running, technique and downfield blocking out the wazoo. By game thirteen, there’s simply no excuse for players like Landers and Simmons to have shown little to no improvement over the course of a season.
There really isn’t. Look on the other side of the ball, where we saw true freshmen and other newcomers making a meaningful impact against a dominant offense. Player development has been a strong suit for Smart’s defense.
The reason I suspect it’s not so much the case for Georgia’s offense is because of the subservient role it’s expected to play to the defense. For Smart, the first responsibility of the offense is to wear the other team’s defense down over four quarters and control the clock, making the defense’s job easier. When that doesn’t happen, it leads to close games against teams with inferior offenses and 37-10 losses to teams with dominant ones. (And, I might add, after a season of judgment about receivers’ ability to block as a measure of game time, complaints from the head coach about a lack of explosiveness.)
And that’s what Kirby’s real responsibility is now. Kick ass results on the recruiting trail are nice, but where the rubber meets the road is figuring out how to turn that into a means of keeping up with the Alabamas, Clemsons, LSUs and Ohio States of the world.
There’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat of protecting a defense. Endless read option calls when the quarterback never keeps the ball isn’t one of them, at least not anymore. It’s up to Smart to figure out a different and successful path forward from that.